Commission, planners tackle outdoor dining in city
By Grace Lovins
Birmingham’s city commission and planning board met at a workshop on Monday, June 20, to further discussion regarding the city’s outdoor dining policy, and to discuss the possibility of social districts and reevaluate current guidelines for food trucks.
After the COVID-19 pandemic began, the city allowed businesses to expand outdoor dining platforms, increasing the outdoor dining capacity. Since the governor’s emergency orders expired in June 2021, the planning board has been slow to come to a consensus on an updated ordinance concerning outdoor dining standards.
The board failed to pass an updated policy at their meeting on Wednesday, May 11, and notably over aspects of the policy such as umbrellas, sun awnings, the use of public property for outdoor dining areas, and access to parking. The ordinance has not yet been presented to the commission.
Access to parking has been a repeated concern expressed during commission and board meetings. Currently, 13 businesses in downtown Birmingham have outdoor dining platforms that occupy a total of 26 parking spaces. Commissioners and planning board members debated whether the occupied spaces are cause for concern for the future, although there is access to parking garages around the area.
The commissioners and planning board members briefly discussed concerns that businesses may be unaware of the current deliberations on outdoor dining policies, despite proper noticing, as some planning board members have been upset at the lack of public comment or input from businesses during planning board meetings. The city commission directed them to continue working on the ordinance.
The city commission previously held a special workshop on Monday, March 14, to consider the use of food trucks and outline issues the planning board should take into consideration when they draft new regulations.
Existing regulations currently permit stationary vendors at public events and during approved special or athletic events, along with restrictions such as limited hours depending on Daylight Saving Time, vendors are not allowed within 50 feet of public locations – schools, courthouse, police stations – unless authorized, and there is a 10-minute time limit for vendors to occupy a stationary location on public property.
Various commissioners and board members expressed support for reestablishing specific guidelines and regulations that allow food trucks to operate around or at the same capacity as frozen confections vendors.
Mayor pro tem Pierre Boutros and commissioner Clinton Baller also reiterated previous suggestions made during the meeting on March 14 that the 90-day notice currently required for permission in order to place food trucks in the streets next to parks be reduced. Baller suggested allowing neighborhood associations being permitted to get expedited permits for food trucks in their neighborhoods, along with encouraging the Birmingham Shopping District (BSD) to encourage food trucks at special events in the city. The planning board was given direction to create a set of guidelines for a trial period where the city would allow food trucks to be stationary at special events in the city. Another idea for the planning board to explore is an area for food trucks in the city during lunch hours, such as Shain Park or the empty lot at Woodward and Maple.
Like the food truck regulations, the city commission had discussed the topic of social districts during their special meeting workshop on Monday, March 14. On the topic of social districts, commissioners expressed mixed opinions when it came to the possibility of establishing a district in the city.
Baller and mayor Therese Longe noted that there is currently a lack of demand for the designation of social districts by local businesses. A social district is a cooperative between a city and at least two restaurants and bars, and currently none in Birmingham have come forward requesting one, Baller said. While most members and commissioners were open to the idea of establishing a social district, there were concerns about street closures creating tension between businesses if patrons are not able to access storefronts or if any increased activity interrupts the operations of the businesses surrounding the district. Longe, Baller and planning board member Stuart Jeffares stated their interest in potentially closing streets for specific days and times during the week for street entertainment without necessarily creating a specific social district. There was discussion and suggestions about closing Pierce, Merrill or Martin streets in downtown, having low key entertainment, including family-friendly entertainment and music, and as Baller said, “the rest will follow.”
Social districts are zones determined by governing bodies of municipalities and the Michigan Liquor Control Commission (MLCC) that allow for the consumption of alcohol within the designated zone. For a social district to be set up, municipalities must include a commons area that is clearly defined and marked with signs within the district where customers of licensed businesses can consume alcohol.
Commissioner Andrew Haig suggested that a trial period could be considered in a dedicated parking lot that would eliminate any need for road closures or possible traffic interruptions and also create an equal opportunity for businesses in the area to participate if they choose.
The planning board was directed to analyze social districts coming to Birmingham in the future at study sessions.